Even though Jews for centuries have lived in Marrakech, Morocco, the marketplace where I’m standing hardly seems like the area where I would find one of the five still existing synagogues. Narrow, maze-like alleys are filled with ragged looking children, dirtied by playing in the sand and mud of the lanes, theses so-called streets so narrow that passersby can’t help but elbow each other. This is the Mellah – the old Jewish quarters. (Mellah means salt and some Jews of the area were salt traders). The Mellah is where Jews worked and lived. Today though, there are about 250 Jews left in Marrakech but they no longer live in these shadowy streets of the Mellah.
After taking three turns from one lane to another, I reach an unexpected bright, small square surrounded by a few two-storey living quarters. This architecture is simple but typical of the city usually bursting with colour. The dormitory-like buildings are painted white with cobalt blue trim, defying the otherwise bleak area.
“Here, the poor are given food and board,” Rami, my guide tells me pointing to the housing units. Another turn and the dark street gives way to a somewhat brighter area. There are no signs but this is La Zama, an Orthodox synagogue. The high double doors are painted in bright blue. It’s not the oldest Jewish prayer center but “the second oldest”, Rami tells me. Verification of its age is hard to get so I have to take his word that it’s about 55 years old.
By great coincidence, before entering La Zama, I notice a man wearing a hat and suit, not a jalaba- the traditional Arab robe. He stands out. Rami tells me that this elderly man is Jewish. I take my chances and walk over to speak with him. Mr. David is cordial and pleased to answer my questions. “No, there are no problems for Jews in this city,” he tells me in French. But then of course, there aren’t that many Jews left.
“Many have moved away,” he says looking sad. Statistics show that in 1945 there were 238,000 Jewish people in Morocco and by 1968 only 22,000. There is no headcount for the 1990s or the new millenium. Coexistence is peaceful he emphasizes. And when Mr. David finds out I’m Canadian, his eyes light up as he tells me that two sons live in Toronto, two more have moved to Paris and another is living in Israel.
A robed caretaker, in La Zama , opens the large doors of the Sephardic synagogue. I’m introduced to another Mr. David who is anxious to speak with me. He’s blind but knows every stair, every chair and bench as he winds his way around the small “shul”. Suddenly he asks his assistant to open the doors of the Tabernacle so that I can see the Torahs. There are two – one is 100 years old the other 125 years old. “They’re from Morocco”, he tells me, proud of the Jewish heritage that existed in this North African country.
My French is adequate enough for me to understand what he is saying. He agrees with the other Mr. David and says there are no problems in this Islamic country. “But we are very poor.” Surprisingly, religion hasn’t faded. Small, verging on shabby, the walls of the building are grey with age, there’s a calendar with a photo of a Rabbi Raskin, an out of place large clock, exposed voltage box, rugs that are curled with wear, pillows on the chairs that are a mish mash of colours and patterns, but the Bemah, although modest, is neat. And each day there is a minyan for prayers at 6:30 AM.
“At Passover and other High Holidays, the 100 seats are full, usually by tourists and the few Jews who still frequent the synagogue. Then I ask about kosher food and matzo. He seems surprised. “Of course we have them. Most comes from Paris and the meat is made kosher here in Marrakech.
After donating some dirhams, we say our good-byes. But Mr. David seems disappointed that I’m about to leave. Unfortunately, I can’t accept his invitation to attend the Friday evening services. He lingers at the large doorway, no seeing but aware that I’m heading back to the maze of streets into the bustling market of Marrakech’s La Mellah.